PORTLAND, Maine — Guitarist and singer Rob Sylvain never heard his grandmother, Elisa, sing the traditional Acadian folk songs she knew and loved. But when she died in 1998, she left behind a tattered, spiral-bound notebook filled with handwritten lyrics.
The journal eventually found its way to Sylvain. He’s spent the last decade researching the songs, reuniting them with their lost melodies and learning to sing them in both French and English. Now, he’s ready to record some of the songs she taught him via her elegant script for a double-CD project he’s calling “Memere’s Notebook.”
Sylvain’s grandmother was born Elisa Thibodeau in the St. John River Valley. She was one of 12 siblings. Elisa married a local boy, Henry Sylvain, who also had a large French-speaking family. They moved to Waterville to work in the mills and raised their family there.
Sylvain’s father, Robert, was one of their children. He grew up speaking French at home and English in public — but that’s where the Acadian heritage stopped. He didn’t pass French on to his children.
Raised mostly in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Minnesota, Sylvain grew up speaking English only, though he heard his father speak French with his own parents. About the time the notebook came to light, Sylvain was starting to get interested in his own Acadian heritage. The lyrics became a gateway to that severed part of his family history.
On Monday, Sylvain spoke with BDN Portland about the project.
Q: The last time you spoke with us about this project was back in 2013, when you were just starting to sing some of the songs in public. Now, you’re planning on making a double-CD set, with one disc of the songs in French and the second disc with the same songs translated into English. Why?
A: I realized these particular songs are mostly ballads. They’re long-ish, like six to eight verses with no chorus. They tell a story. They’re beautiful but if you don’t speak French, then after the second or third verse you think: “That’s a nice melody but I really wonder what is going on.” To bring them to my generation, to my [English-speaking] peers, to my audience, I thought they should be translated. I started that process three or four years ago after sitting with these songs in French for about 15 years.
Q: You don’t see that as a kind of cheating, of watering down the culture?
A: My father spent most of his life trying to assimilate into Anglo culture and I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to get back into Franco culture. But I realized that Acadian culture lives in Maine with — or without — the language. I know a lot of people in heritage preservation are adamant about keeping the language as a link to the past, to the culture, to old Acadia and to Quebec. I understand that but there’s [already] Acadian culture here in Maine but it’s hidden by multiple generations of oppression and assimilation, the idea of the “melting pot.” Yet, you can still feel, and see and hear the echoes of that culture across the language barrier.
Q: Do you think that translating these songs into English, getting them heard by a wider audience, will actually help strengthen the culture?
A: Part of my hope is that people see, in these songs, that thread of tradition and culture transcending the language barrier — and also transcending time.
Q: What do you mean?
A: That’s there’s a connection to the past not just to be looked at under glass. I have no interest in digging up a mummy and looking at it from afar. Folk music is supposed to be a connection to the past that lives on in each generation that puts their own stamp on it — and that’s what I’m doing. It’s my life’s work.
Q: Are you making sure you’re kinds learn French?
A: My oldest is fluent and they all know a lot of these songs.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Rob Sylvain is currently taking preorders for Memere’s Notebook, along with lyrics, sheet music and classroom educational visits. Sylvain hopes to be finished by spring.